The Magna Carta: Did a Tyrannical English King Really Set the Stage for Liberty?
The Magna Carta is often lauded as an important milestone in human history. It is said to have guaranteed individual rights, the right to justice, and the right to a fair trial, as well as establishing the principle that everyone, including a monarch, is subject to the law. However, some have argued that its significance has been dramatically overestimated.
What is the Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta Liberatum (which is Medieval Latin meaning ‘Great Charter of the Liberties’), more commonly known simply as the Magna Carta, is a document that was authorized by John, the King of England, in 1215.
The Story Behind the Document
Thus, the story of the Magna Carta begins with King John of England, who is more commonly remembered today for his negative, rather than positive qualities as a ruler. John was the youngest legitimate son of Henry II of England (with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine), and was thus not expected to inherit any of his father’s domains. In fact, it has been speculated that John was being prepared for a life of scholarship. As his older brothers died one by one, John eventually found himself on the throne of the Angevin Empire, which included not only England, but also parts of France.
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According to the writings of the historians who chronicled his reign, John was a tyrannical ruler. It is known that he levied steep taxes on his subjects to fund his military campaigns in France. He had lost much of his lands there to the French king, Philip II, and attempted to regain them, though ultimately ending in failure. When the nobles were unable to pay these taxes, and fell into debt, they were severely punished by the king. Additionally, John was at loggerheads with the Church, another powerful institution during the Middle Ages. The election of Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, was a major point of conflict between King John and Pope innocent III. This resulted in England being placed under interdict in 1208, and John being excommunicated in 1209. Moreover, in 1213, Philip II of France was charged by the pope to depose John.
By 1215, John faced not only enemies from without, but also from within. His barons, no longer able to tolerate the king’s tyranny, rebelled, and in May 1215, captured London. Caught between a rock and a hard place, John had no choice but to negotiate with the rebels. In June 1215, the king met the rebels to hear their demands, and on the 15th day of that month, at Runnymede, near Windsor, John agreed to seal the Magna Carta, which enshrined the rights of these barons in law.
King John of England signing Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede; colored wood engraving, 19th century. (Public Domain)
Why Was the Magna Carta Important?
The Magna Carta consists of 63 clauses, the best well-known of which are clauses 39, which states that “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”, and 40 “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
The Magna Carta became a symbol of liberty in more recent centuries, as it was used as the foundation for such important constitutional documents as the 1791 United States Bill of Rights, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
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The 1297 version of Magna Carta, one of four originals of the document. (Public Domain)
What Did the Magna Carta Do in 1215?
Nevertheless, this had not been so in 1215. For instance, at that time, “free men” did not refer to the general population as a whole, it was limited to the nobility. The impact of this charter as a legal document may also be said to have had little impact at that point of time. Soon after the king authorized the Magna Carta, he requested the pope to repeal it.
This was granted, as John had managed to patch things up with Innocent III. This led to the First Baron’s War, which lasted until 1217. John died of dysentery on October 19, 1216, and his successor, Henry III, released three revised versions during his reign. Subsequently, additional revisions were made before the Magna Carta took on its present form.
Engraved facsimile of the original text of the Magna Carta, surrounded by a series of 25 coats of hand-colored arms of the Barons, panel at foot containing notes and a representation (hand-colored) of the remains of King John's Great Seal, all panels surrounded by oak leaf and acorn borders. (Public Domain)
Top Image: A romanticized 19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta. (Deriv.) (Public Domain) Background: Detail of Cotton MS. Augustus II. 106, one of only four surviving exemplifications of the 1215 Magna Carta text. (Public Domain)
By Wu Mingren
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